Berlin, 1811. Heinrich (Christian Friedel) is an author with a melancholy disposition. Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) is a woman determined to live out her life in deference to her businessman husband (Stephan Grossmann). The writer is smitten at first sight; the lady demurs his affections. When Heinrich later proposes that they die together in a suicide pact, Henriette blanches. But her feelings change after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. These events actually happened between the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist – author of ‘The Marquise of O’ – and his friend Henriette Vogel. Theirs wasn’t a romance informed by physical lust or passion for life, but by an all-consuming obsession with death.
Writer-director Jessica Hausner, whose rigorous, radically feminist films like ‘Hotel’ (2004) and ‘Lourdes’ (2009) seem equally derived from Chantal Akerman and Stanley Kubrick, recognises the comic possibilities of the scenario. It takes some time to get acclimated to Heinrich’s gloomy pronouncements (‘Would you like to die with me?’ he wonders, as if asking about the weather), as well as to the stiffness of the performers. Even the wallpaper in Henriette’s drawing room seems as if it might come to life and swallow the characters whole. You’re not sure whether to laugh at or recoil from these people and their oppressive surroundings.
That tension actually works to the advantage of the entrancing ‘Amour Fou’, drawing you in the more you submit to Hausner’s chilly rhythms. The movie adheres to the basics of the von Kleist-Vogel story while pushing off into several provocative areas of its own. Especially pointed is the question of whether Henriette is a willing participant in von Kleist’s depressive mania. Is she suffering from a self-made crisis of the heart, or is this an ailment brought on by the stigmas of the society in which she lives? This is no swoony love story. It intoxicates all the same.